“Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

TRUTH, The Whole Truth And Nothing But

Hmmm. You go away on holidays and the world turns upside down. Brazil and Argentina go out of the World Cup at the quarter-final stage, Sligo beat Galway (after hammering Mayo in the previous round) to make the Connacht Final, and a crime writer wins Australia’s prestigious Miles Franklin Award.
  This being a books blog, we’ll concentrate on Peter Temple. First off, hearty congrats to the man. Not only is he a terrific writer, but a little birdie tells me he’s a decent human being to boot.
  I’m a little bit wary, though, of the way the crime fiction niche of the blogosphere has been jumping up and down about TRUTH’s success. The general impression appears to be that crime fiction is finally getting its turn in the sun, and that the barriers between genre fiction and prestigious prizes are being broken down.
  I doubt very much if that is the case. Rather, I’d imagine it’s the case that Peter Temple’s TRUTH is an excellent novel, and has been rewarded as such. Those who think that TRUTH has breached the ivory tower of the literary establishment, and that crime fiction is about to pour through the gap, will be sorely disappointed.
  The Guardian had an excellent piece last week on Peter Temple’s win, following up on the news with a query as to whether a crime novel will ever win the Booker Prize, for example. Contributors included Ian Rankin and John Banville, but the most pertinent comment came from Morag Fraser. To wit:
For Morag Fraser, a Miles Franklin judge for the past six years, it is simply a question of quality. “Most crime novels that I have read (and I read one a week, often more) will never win the Miles Franklin or any other ‘literary’ prize because they do not work language hard enough, and they do not think originally and with sufficient depth and imagination,” she said. “They may gratify but they do not surprise the way great literature does.”
  “In the case of Peter Temple’s TRUTH, the divide was so comprehensively crossed that we did not think much about the conventions of crime fiction except to note that Temple was able to observe them rather as a poet observes the 14-line convention of the sonnet or a musician the sonata form: as a useful disciplinary structure from which to expand, bend or depart.”
  All of which should be patently obvious to crime writers, but is patently not. Of the 25 or so crime novels I’ve read so far this year, only three - Alan Furst’s SPIES OF THE BALKANS, John Hart’s THE LAST CHILD and Eoin McNamee’s ORCHID BLUE - allowed me to forget that I was reading crime fiction. In other words, and despite working within the parameters of crime fiction, they were simply novels, rather than a specific type of novel.
  There is a tension inherent in writing genre fiction, of course. Every author writes the best novel he or she can, but the commercial imperative at the heart of genre fiction means that, in order to appeal to as big an audience as possible, the best of intentions are often compromised in order to fit a story or a character into a particular format. That well may prove successful and profitable in the short-term, but in the long run, an adherence to formula is undermining crime writing. It’s worth quoting Morag Fraser again: “Most crime novels … do not think originally and with sufficient depth and imagination. They may gratify but they do not surprise the way great literature does.”
  Not every novel can be great literature, of course, just as not every novel can win a prize. But here’s the thing: originality, and depth and imagination, can surprise, even if they ‘fail’ to gratify. And here’s the other thing: there’s only so many brass rings to be grasped at. The thousand, or ten thousand, wannabes chasing Lee Child’s coattails, or the thousand, or ten thousand, bandwagon-jumpers currently labouring over their version of THE GIRL WITH THE DA VINCI TATTOO, are far more likely to be commercially successful with an original work than a second- or third-rate knock-off of a proven winner.
  I’ve written elsewhere on this blog (in a comments box, I think) that the novel is the most potent tool we have when it comes to understanding, or trying to, what it means to be human and alive. You can argue for music and theatre and psychology and whatever you’re having yourself - I’m biased in favour of the novel. The point being that Peter Temple was rewarded with the Miles Franklin Award not for writing a crime novel, or an excellent crime novel, but for writing a superb novel that explores the human condition.
  Last month, writing about the plethora of crime fiction awards, I said this:
I’ll be honest with you: I want more from the crime novel. I want more than a response of ‘Oh, it’s the classical Greek structure’ when someone complains about simplicity of form. I want more than ‘Oh, it’s what the market demands’ when someone complains about shallow characterisation. I want more than ‘Oh, the crime novel is traditionally a conservative art form’ when someone complains about predictability. And I definitely want more than ‘Oh, you don’t want to make the reader so much as blink’ when someone complains that the writing wants for challenging prose or narrative conceits.
  These days, more often than not, I’m reading crime fiction out of a sense of duty, and turning to ‘literary’ fiction for my kicks.
  It may be hard for some crime writing fans to stomach, but Peter Temple won the Miles Franklin Award not because he is a crime writer, or even a very good crime writer, but because he is the exception to the rule.

4 comments:

seana said...

Excellent post, Declan. Although I don't think you can blame crime writers for cheering one of their own for breaking that particular barrier. On the other side of the argument, you find very few crime novels that are either pretentious or trivial in their subject matter, which is more than you can say for many literary aspirants.

Declan Burke said...

Seana - Absolutely, it's important for writers to be supportive of one another. That's mostly the point of this blog, and most book blogs. I suppose what I was trying to say, in a nutshell, was that it wasn't a crime novel that won the Miles Franklin award, it was a Peter Temple novel.

And yes, some literary novels can be pretentious in intent, but if a writer has a facility for language, even that's not necessarily an issue.

And I've read some extremely trivial crime novels in the recent past; and not only trivial, but exploitative, lurid and senationalist, particularly in their use of violence, and particularly in their use of violence against women.

Cheers, Dec

seana said...

I agree on all points--I just meant that by their nature, the subject matter of crime novels, ie, crime, is not generally trivial. The execution of the story is quite another thing.

Peter Rozovsky said...

I like Morag Fraser's comments, and I've alluded to them at my place. She is so right in tone and in substance that it seems almost beside the point to comment.

I would only remind everyone that the choice need not be between excellent novels that happen to be about crime, be they by Peter Temple or William McIlvanney or Bill James or John Hart on the one hand, and trivial fluff on the other. There is room in this world for good, unpretentious fun like ... well, Hard Case Crime, old-style pulp, Agatha Christie, maybe.

One possible consquence of the is-crime-fiction-literature? debate is that partisans may make preposterously lofty claims for good popular literature.
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